It has been with a sweet sadness that I have watched my sole supply of Knotweed blossom honey dwindle away to a mere tablespoon’s-worth in recent days, knowing full well that it is unlikely that the hives of an Oregon friend will yield a replacement any time soon. Along with other challenges for adventurous bee-keepers, knotweed plants are considered an invasive species and are on a “must kill” list across America in many states. Honeybees (fortunately) have not gotten that message, and given the chance will fill their combs with some of the darkest, almost molasses-like and delicious honeys it has been my nectareous pleasure to sample. And the joy of “sampling” is what I choose to write about today.
For the true honey connoisseur, the ubiquitous so-called Clover honey found on most supermarket shelves, (most often a generic terminology for a wide blend of whatever roaming bee colonies have brought home in a largely agricultural America), is a wonderful but rather pedestrian treat, much as an unlabeled and non-varietal “table wine” might be to an Oenophile. It is the true varietal or mono-floral honey produced from a single species of bloom that brings cries of joy from the honey aficionado. Part of the appreciation implicit in each magical taste of what is a true rarity arises from the sense of geography associated with the blossom source itself as well as from the dedicated hive management required to bring it to the tasting table.
For an apiarist to identify a product with a varietal label – such as “Oregon Blackberry Honey” (one of my favorites, and always on the shelf) – he must be able to demonstrate that the predominant source of his bees’ nectar-gathering during a specific period of blossoming did in fact derive from the area’s thriving cultivation of blackberries.
At or near the top of my list of most precious and delectable honeys is Sourwood blossom honey, one of this country’s rarest. Known as the “Lilly-of-the-Valley Tree” it is fast disappearing from the southern states where it grows and where it blossoms for a very short period of time (and not every year). The beekeeper must position his hives in an exact location so as to capture the beginning and ending of a very brief window of opportunity in order to produce a harvest. One writer said “most honey is made by bees. But Sourwood is made by bees and angels”. The same kind of precise timing governs the activity of the Richard Speigel family who harvest the extremely rare Hawaiian thick white honey from the Big Island’s Kiawe trees each year; precious “gems” relayed to me by dear friends.
Another of my favorites is Tupelo blossom honey, gathered from hives mounted and tended on raised platforms in the swampland forests of Georgia and Florida. High in levulose, it’s syrupy liquid will never crystallize and its flavor distinguishes it from all others.
From the Piedmont region of Northern Italy comes my rare and almost colorless Acacia honey so delicate of flavor, one can see why the Ancient world thought of it as coming from the gods, its blossoms crowning a tree whose wood is believed to have found its way into Solomon’s Temple and The Ark of the Covenant. Even within a blossom species there are wonderful and subtle variations of flavor to marvel at such as two contrasting jars of Orange blossom honey on my shelf; one from Florida and the other (which gets my vote), from the orchards of Murcia in coastal Spain.
A honeybee gathers pollen from an “endangered” knotweed plant.
A quartet of “sweets” from around the world from left to right:
Oregon Blackberry blossom honey; Appalachian Sourwood honey; Acacia honey from Italy; Orange Blossom honey from Spain.